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Mary Jo Hotzler, Published December 18 2011

The beauty of family: Alexia Stein is a nurse and a mother. She’s also this month’s Beautiful Woman

FARGO - “The best things in life aren’t things.”

Alexia Stein considers these words to live by.

The saying is the first thing to greet you as you walk through the front door of her north Fargo home. Etched on what Stein calls her “family wall” – an elegant display of framed family photos and mementos – the words are an everyday reminder of how precious life is.

“That puts it all together for me,” Stein says. “Your kids are irreplaceable.”

The space around the inspirational word-art is dedicated largely to her five children – two of whom are still living: Hudson, 5, and Nora, 9 months.

But there’s also a photo of Gabe, the stillborn baby delivered in May of 2009. In his picture, Gabe looks peaceful and innocent, like any other sleeping baby.

Another frame displays a simple date: Dec. 31, 2009. That was the day baby Sophia died. There are no pictures of Sophia, so the date is a way to honor her.

Stein and husband Tony are still trying to figure out how to memorialize the third child they lost to miscarriage in March 2010.

Losing three babies in less than a year’s time has given Stein, 31, the perspective to know just how fragile life is and how beautiful the gift of family can be.

Gabe

It was early in 2009 – Feb. 6 to be exact – when the Steins went in for a routine 20-week ultrasound. Like many couples at this stage, they couldn’t wait to find out whether they would be giving Hudson a new little brother or a new little sister.

But as soon as the ultrasound technician explained that she needed to take a closer look at some things and that she needed her manager, Stein knew something was wrong – partly because of instinct; partly because Stein was a trained nurse at Sanford’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She understood the story that was playing out.

Gabe, as the little boy came to be named, had no amniotic fluid, which is necessary for a baby to develop and thrive. Typically a baby in utero would swallow the fluid and excrete it, but Gabe’s body wasn’t doing this, and the fluid was backing up inside of him.

Doctors didn’t know if Gabe was in pain, but they knew irreparable damage had been done to his organs. Gabe wouldn’t be able to survive after birth, but he also wasn’t ready to be born.

For the next 17 weeks, Alexia and Tony waited. Each day marked a rollercoaster of mixed emotion.

“I had times when I was mad at God and the scenario,” Stein says, explaining that as a NICU nurse she’s the one who helps sick and premature babies, and in this case she was helpless to do anything for her own child.

Instead of doing all of the exciting things most expectant parents would be doing at this stage of pregnancy, Alexia was picking out Gabe’s casket, and Tony was writing his son’s obituary. Both were mourning, yet knew Gabe’s life deserved to be celebrated, too. The parents planned a birthday party as well as a funeral.

Gabe died one minute before he was delivered on May 26, 2009.

“That was the worst for me,” Stein said. “He was perfect.”

Sophia

The Steins remained in the hospital two days, holding Gabe the entire time. They were able to take photos and create molds of his face, hands and feet.

But when it came time to leave the hospital, Stein says she “ran away.” She couldn’t handle the calls and the people asking if she was OK. She and Hudson went to a friend’s place in Bismarck for two weeks, followed by a short stay at her in-laws home.

She also took some time away from her NICU job. After losing her own child so tragically, Stein had a hard time seeing babies end up in the NICU fighting to live because of something their mother had done to them, for example taking drugs or drinking during pregnancy. Stein couldn’t understand how some parents could be so careless with their baby’s life, and she worried that her anger might get the best of her.

Eventually, Stein realized the need to move forward, knowing it would be the only way to heal. She found comfort in holding the small mold of Gabe’s face and talking to him. Incorporating him into everyday life became a priority.

In August that same year, Stein found out she was again pregnant. Despite having lost one child, she wasn’t overly fearful, figuring she had been through the darkest days.

Still, they did an earlier-than-normal ultrasound, at around 16 weeks, only to be handed another devastating blow – the little girl growing inside Stein wasn’t viable. They later learned she had Trisomy 13, a rare and disfiguring chromosomal disorder.

There was no connection to what had happened with Gabe. It was simply happenstance that Stein faced the loss of two babies, back-to-back.

After hearing the news this time, Stein stayed mad longer.

“I was irate … I thought, this is a cruel trick.”

Baby Sophia died on New Year’s Eve, marking the end of a difficult year. Because of the condition of her body, the family didn’t take pictures or create keepsakes. Stein knew Sophia was never meant for this world, but that didn’t take away the void:

“You never expect to be pregnant and to have empty arms.”

Stein suffered another miscarriage in March 2010. She was 16 weeks along this time, and though she doesn’t know for certain, Stein believes she was carrying a girl.

After that, she decided to let nature takes its course, but within a few months she was pregnant again. It was June 2010.

This pregnancy was different than the others. Fearful of what could happen, Stein had a difficult time bonding with the baby. She found ways to distract herself during the pregnancy – namely by taking on home decorating projects – and when baby Nora was born on Feb. 22, 2011, everything fell into place.

Nora was healthy and perfect.

“My whole body was filled with joy,” Stein says. “It was love at first sight.”

Hope and healing

The experiences of the past few years have changed the Stein family – Alexia, Tony and even Hudson, who still talks about his siblings, Gabe and Sophia.

Today, Stein says she holds on to her kids tighter than before and has a harder time letting others take care of them and letting them branch out. Even the idea of Hudson riding the school bus feels too risky.

But Stein hasn’t lost hope. In fact, she and Tony want to have more children someday in the not-so-far-off future.

Stein says she’s also found her professional passion: helping other families dealing with the loss of a child. Through her job at the NICU, Stein is able to talk to families and explain to them that she really does know how they’re feeling.

“It’s a reality to so many people … it used to just be brushed under the rug.”

Tony, who nominated Alexia for the Beautiful Women project, is committed to being right there by his wife’s side to help share the story of their family’s healing and of his wife’s strength and inner beauty.

“I admire and love her dearly for embracing the good that is hard to grasp in times of darkness while being able to encourage, support, and better the lives of everyone around her,” Tony says of his wife. “She’s beyond beautiful – she was well past that after saying ‘hello.’ ”


Congrats to other nominees

Alexia Stein was chosen as the December Beautiful Woman by you, the readers. But there were other amazing women in the mix. Forum Communications and Catalyst Medical Center would like to also recognize and congratulate Tara Hart and Meredith Olafson.


Readers can reach Forum Deputy Editor and SheSays Editor Mary Jo Hotzler at (701) 241-5582